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Magic the Gathering: Unstable – First Impressions

People who have read this blog for a while know that, a few months ago, I tried to get into Magic the Gathering. By this I don’t mean to get up to tournament level, but being a blogger in the gaming world it is important to at least have a basic understanding of the game and what it means. To be honest, the Magic culture is interesting enough, with such a fantastic following, to have peaked my attention, and seeing it at every expo has just increased that curiosity. I went out, bought a couple of decks, and read a few books about Magic the Gathering. Recently, a new fire of interest has sparked thanks to the MtG Facebook page and pictures posted on there of the Unstable cards. With that in mind, I thought I would go out and buy four booster packs to give an opinion – because, you know, the opinion of a complete newbie to the subject is always worthwhile.

Why look at MtG: Unstable?

In all of my research into Magic the Gathering and with all my reading around the subject, I have to admit that I considered Magic to be a fairly serious game. When I bought my first couple of decks, all I could see were cards about demons and zombies. Further reading into characters like Ob Nilixis and Nissa added to this; and yet, my Facebook feed was filling with random cards, the likes of which I would never associate with Magic the Gathering. There was something eccentric about the release, and these Facebook posts showcased cards like Just Desserts (which showed a Joker throwing cream pies) and Urza, who has his own website (www.askurza.com). These showed a light side to the Magic mythos, one that I really wanted to explore further.

So, dear reader, I, as a board game blogger who knows zip about Magic the Gathering in the long run, took it upon myself to trek deep into the heart of Birmingham, where I bought four boosters, immersed myself in a Christmas Market, and ate pie. Let’s take a look at Magic the Gathering: Unstable and whether it is as awesome as it looks.

What are the first impressions of Magic the Gathering: Unstable?

It was around 5pm in the afternoon when I opened my first booster pack. I was sat in an underground pie restaurant in the heart of Brum, when I tore it open. The front of the booster packs displayed a couple of zany characters – a cat mad scientist, and another wizardy/warlock kind of guy. This seemed like a good start. I hadn’t looked at the boosters in Forbidden Planet, when I bought them, because the guy literally handed the box to me from the shelf and said “you pick them, that way I can’t get blamed for the cards”. There has to be a deeper story behind why he said that, but the point is I didn’t know what I had until I took them out of the bag and peeled the price labels off.

And, opening the packet, one of the cat scientist ones (actually the one pictured as the header image, for those who are interested), my first response was:

“Oh, right, is this it?”

I flicked through the cards once, twice, three times, and none of them had the quirky artwork I was expecting from the Facebook posts. Upon first inspection, there was nothing that really made me say “wow”. Instead, I had a bunch of basic cards, one land, one shiny card, and two contraption artifacts. The shiny was a Squirrel, which I guess was kind of quirky, but minds were far from blown.

A quick thought on Magic the Gathering Boosters

One thing that I have to admit I am highly impressed with is the number of cards that come in a Magic the Gathering booster pack. The boosters contain fifteen cards, which are more than double the size of a Pokémon booster back in the late 1990s, and almost 4x the size of a Star Wars: Destiny booster. This means that, with 216 cards in the Unstable release, collecting a full set is relatively doable. Collecting a full set of Destiny cards through boosters, however, seems impossible, even with fewer cards in each release because there are so few in each pack.

Unstable: Upon second inspection…

Where first impressions may not have lived up to the expectations set by the Magic the Gathering Facebook page, second impressions really, really did. It turns out, the first booster I opened, was (hands down) the worst booster of the four. The rest held a treasure trove of surprises and the humour seems to come across in a few different ways.

Firstly, the very basic thing the Facebook page seemed to showcase, is the imagery. Now, this isn’t incredibly humorous until it is mixed with the title or text; however, there are a few cards that stand out. Out of the 60 cards I picked up, there are only around five with images that I would consider specifically funny and that could stand up by themselves as abstract art without reference. These include the cards Gimmie Five and Handy Dandy Cloning Machine. The latter, I am not 100% sure it is meant to be as funny as it is, and it reminds me of Spykids, but still – I chuckled. I think it is because the Homunculus, which looks similar to a hand, looks like it is strutting.

The second style of humour is that within the titles of the cards. This has been touched upon earlier in this article, but cards like “Rumours of My Death” are really clever, as they reference something outside of the game. Aside from those a few of the Cyborg Knights drew my attention – Knight of the Kitchen Sink, for instance, and unrelated to the knights, there are cards like Selfie Preservation. These are both takes on popular phrases and sayings, or cultural references that can make even the most hardened player smirk. For instance, GO TO JAIL is, I think, a Monopoly reference, and who doesn’t want a Really Epic Punch? No reference there – just an awesome title.

Some of the titles also trigger the imagination, and some act as asides which are, in all honesty, a kind of meta-humour I didn’t expect from a card game like Magic the Gathering. Instead cards like Entirely Normal Armchair nudge the player as if to say “you know there is nothing normal about this, right?”

One third place for humour comes from the abilities the cards have, and this is where they really take the traditional concept of a card game and turn it on its head. These cards, so many of these cards, are meta in how they interact with the game. They turn the game into something of a well-intended mockery of itself, with cards like the Hoisted Hireling only being in play so long as the card is physically held above the battlefield. The Entirely Normal Armchair can be physically hidden on the battlefield, only to be able to destroy a creature if it doesn’t get spotted. Knight of the Kitchen Sink has the ability that it cannot be attacked by anything with an open mouth in the picture. capital offence gives -X/-X to a creature, until the next turn, where X is the number of times a capital letter appears in its rules text. It has the description “part basket case, all lowercase”. Whoever wrote that was a genius.

There are quite a few cards in the deck that rely on one form of the humour or another; however, there are certain cards where all three come together. Knight of the Kitchen Sink is one such card; however, my favourite one has to be capital offence.

Of course, these basic cards aren’t where the Unstable deck is really unique. They are standard cards, made more entertaining, however, the mechanics behind the cards are still the same. Where the Unstable release is unique is with hybrid cards.

These cards, known as Augment and Host cards, are two cards that completely change how they work when merged into one. Rather than one beastie, with its ability as normal, these Jumbomorphs (that’s what the Magic website calls them) completely change when put together. This gives way to a lot of deck building strategy, trying to figure out how to get the best result.

What this means is that combos like “Rhino-Vacuum”, “Half Orc, Half Octopus”, and “Robo-Kangaroo” can be played. The Host cards can also be played on their own, which adds even more versatility. Who doesn’t want to play a card called Eager Beaver?

What is really nice is the start of the new instructions for the card is on the Augment card. The latter half of the effect is on the Host.

So what is the conclusion from a newbie’s perspective?

To be honest, deep down, I am really impressed with the Unstable release. It is far deeper, far more intelligent, and more meta than any other silly card game I know. This has led to quite a few moments of revelation when reading the cards that have been really enjoyable.

The big question though – has it made enough of an impact that I would consider collecting it as a set? You know, I think I would.

There is something highly enjoyable about the Unstable set and (joyfully) I think it works well as a semi-serious fantasy game in it’s own right. This is so much so that I am actually looking forward to opening my next booster pack.

So, what do you think Magic and non-Magic players alike? Is this a release you can get behind? Whether you can or can’t, then why? Let me know in the comments below.

3 Comments »

  1. This will surely be seen as sacrilege but, frankly, I always have and will continue to bypass Magic because games like Android: Netrunner (designed by Richard Garfield the same guy who created Magic in the first place, and King of Tokyo by the way) are just plain better.

    Pipe down and hear me out.

    Magic was novel when it was released but many, many years later the old formulaic limit on drawing cards is a dusty old mechanic in my view. The variety of the game is derived from constantly buying boxes of boosters and hoping for the best. It has several decades of inertia and momentum behind it but that doesn’t automatically make it good. The best I can say for it is that Magic is the best managed gaming property out there. Wizards know how to make money because they know their target audience. More power to them and the players that choose to invest in the game.

    Android: Netrunner (which is actually the second edition reboot) is what Magic would be if Richard Garfield could redesign the whole thing from scratch: more choices that matter each turn, more options, truly balanced asymmetric play. With occasional $40 purchases for boxed sets, Android will cost you $18 a month to stay completely current and have every single card available to you (in triplicate) to build each and every kind of deck possible. You don’t need a $1,000 deck to make it past regionals. Is there a specific card that you want? Buy the pre-constructed expansion pack for $18 and you’ve now got 3 of them.

    I’ve played Magic, it’s a good game. It’s just that I’ve played better games that scratch the same itch and they don’t eat my entire gaming budget every time I get the urge to have a go at a local tourney or two.

    OK, go ahead Magic fans. Pile on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit, although I haven’t played Android Netrunner, I agree with you about the LCG format. It is easier to manage than a CCG. I like it with the Game of Thrones card game. Downside is you can’t miss a release. Upside is you can keep several on the go where with a CCG you can blow your budget and not even guarantee a card you want.

      I did not know the designer went on to create King of Tokyo. That’s an ace fact. Really random as well.

      Like

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